Wishing her Happy 71st Birthday on April 26, 2013
I am not a journalist, nor am I in a line which should bring me anywhere near film people. Yet, here I was having a relaxed conversation with Minoo Mumtaz in her apartment in Pune, a few months back. Some stories are epic in scale. This one had its beginning on the other side of the globe, about a year back, when I had gone for a conference in Toronto, Canada.
When we travel on work we try to mix business with pleasure, which normally means half a day or a day out for sight-seeing. After my conference was over, my flight back home was the next day evening, which gave me plenty of time to travel to Niagara. My local hosts had mentioned that AJ himself, the owner of the AJ Transport Company, whose transport was hired, would be driving me, and that he was a nephew of Mehmood. This was interesting, but it was said in a way as if he was just one among a whole lot of Mehmood clan.
A day out with Minoo Mumtaz’s son Ajaz Ali (AJ)
When it turned out that AJ was the son of Minoo Mumtaz, and she lived with him in Toronto, I felt bad that I came to know of this link too late, otherwise I would have much rather spent my spare time with her – I had been to Niagara earlier.
AJ himself is a fantastic person. Not only he has a successful car rental business, he runs an old age home in Niagara, and with its residents he shares a very apparent mutual affection. He is a thorough Niagara man – he shows you around a Niagara which is much more than the touristy Falls. The Falls are obviously awesome, but he knows Niagara’s other beautiful water bodies, picnic spots, restaurants, wineries, the world’s largest open butterfly park, and the picture postcard town Niagara-on-the-Lake, a few miles down from the Falls (it reminded me of Burton-on-Water in the Cotswold area, Oxford) – AJ takes you to spots where Lonely Planet cannot reach.
My first sentence to him on knowing that he was Minoo Mumtaz’s son was ‘So, saqiya aaj mujhe need nahi ayegi’. That opened the floodgates, whenever he was not able to answer my queries, he would call up his Mom. Sweet! You can see he is very articulate – in this short video recorded at ‘Guru’, one of his favourite restaurants, owned by one Anitaji (naturally his friend, who in Niagara is not?), he talks about the history of his family. It starts with Mumtaz Ali, Mehmood and Minoo Mumtaz’s father, and AJ’s Nana. We know of Mumtaz Ali as a famous actor of the vintage era. But what may not be known, as I piece together from what AJ told me, is that the child Mumtaz Ali, when he could no longer take the atrocities of his step-sister, one day ran away from his home in Saudi Arabia, and escaped in a vessel. On waking up he found himself at the Gateway of India in Bombay, and started to eke out a living as thousands of street children do. One Horniman Saheb took a liking for him and brought him up. He was a poet in theatre, and thus started Mumtaz’s entry into theatre and films. Mumtaz Ali had four sons and four daughters, one of whom is Minoo and another was Mehmood. With Mumtaz Ali, the daughter Minoo started travelling for theatre shows. Her dancing talent was recognized early. In one of her travels to Madras, the scion of Arcot family met and liked her, and thus it was that she was married to Syed Ali Akbar.
Some trivia about Mehmood narrated by AJ. Mehmood struggled in life to make both ends meet – he would sell candies and do mimicry in trains. But when he became famous, even big stars were scared to act opposite him as he would steal the scene. Raj Kapoor refused to work with him after Parvarish, except for a two-seconds’ appearance together in Abdullah. AJ’s father directed Mamu’s (Mehmood’s) first production Chhote Nawab.
AJ then takes me to his favourite view point, some 15 kilometres down the Falls, and talks some more about his mother’s career and life. For the first time I came to know that she was the leading lady in Black Cat. And in a great coincidence, on my return, Zee Classic was showing Black Cat! I could catch only parts of it, but yes I did get to see Main tumhi se poochhti hun. She is thoroughly convincing as a heroine in this and other songs in the film. Her first film was Sakhi Hatim starring Daljit and Chitra. Her last film was Palki. Her other notable films are Chirag Kahan Roshani Kahan, Gharana, Taj Mahal, Howrah Bridge, besides the well known Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam.
With this much information, which was mostly new for me, I was ready to do a post on Minoo Mumtaz. Ever since I took notice of her in Saqiya aaj mujhe neend nahi ayegi, I had been fascinated by her, and I had started making a mental note of her other outstanding dance-songs. There was no particular reason for the delay, except that once in a while I would write to AJ if he could send me some more current material and photographs of hers. Then when I was least expecting, I got a mail from him that she was going to be in Pune for some time, and gave me her contact number. This was a stroke of great luck, because in the next few days I was to travel to Pune on work. So, in another mixing of business with pleasure, I landed at her apartment in Pune, where she received me with great kindness and charm. She was very spontaneous and spoke freely about the fascinating history of her family, her career and her present – most of which, I believe, would be coming in the public domain for the first time.
Minoo Mumtaz ki kahani unki zubani
“BG Horniman Saheb adopted my father, who was castaway at Gateway of India in a ship from Saudi Arabia. Daddy’s real name was Anwar Ali, but Horniman Saheb gave him the name, Mumtaz Ali (reasons not clear). Horniman Saheb used to bring out a famous newspaper.
“Dance was in my Daddy’s DNA. Bombay those days had a large number of theatre groups, where Daddy started dancing. Mr Horniman was not pleased, but looking at Daddy’s passion he agreed.
(AJ’s account that Mr Horniman was a poet in theatre is at slight variance with his mother’s that he was a journalist. Please see the Note at the end.)
“Daddy was married when he was 16 and my Mummy was 11. She bore her first child when she was 14. Thereafter, one after the other, the children just kept coming. The only reasonable gap was after Usman Bhai, when I was born three years after him. We are eight brothers and sisters. The eldest, Hussaini Begum, went to Pakistan, where she passed away recently. The second was Mehmood Bhai, next was Hetunissa, thereafter, Usman Ali. After him I was born, my real name was Malika Begum. After me came, Zubeida Begum, then Shaukat Ali, and the last, Anwar Ali.
“Daddy was the first person to introduce dance into films. Devika Rani took a great liking for him, and employed him in the Bombay Talikes. His dance in the song Main to Dilli se dulhan laya re became a roaring hit.
“Among my brothers and sisters, I was the first to come into films. Soon after me came Mehmood Bhai. Anwar Ali was also into films, producing films like Khuda Gawah.
“My first film was Sakhi Hatim (1955) with Daljit and Chitra. In this film I did not have any dance. My role was of a jalpari. But dance was in my blood. I had learnt dancing from Daddy, who also used to teach many girls at our house. Kuldeep Kaur noticed me on the sets of Sakhi Hatim, and knowing that I was Mumtaz Ali’s daughter, asked me if I would like to dance. This is what I wanted. My first dance was in the film Miss Coca Cola. The next was Society. Thereafter, my dance duet with Helen in Halaku became very famous, in which I beat her in competition. I became famous as a dancer, and I got dancing roles in many films.
“Then I said, bahut dance hua, mujhe role chahiye. I started getting comedy roles with all the top comedians of the time – Johnny Walker, Om Prakash, Sundar Uncle and even Mehmood Bhai. With Mehmood Bhai in Howrah Bridge, I had a romantic role, and we acted and danced quite freely to a duet. But there was a great deal of protest from the public, how can brother and sister romance? Then I said, Lo Bhaijan, ho gayi chhutti, ab se hum sirf bhai bahan ka role karenge.
“I was opposite Johnny Walker in many films. In Kagaz Ke Phool I was with him in the song Humko pyar karna mangta. I also had a song with him in Paigham. In CID, Boojh mera kya gaon re on me is very famous. There was a duet with Madhubala and me in Insan Jaag Utha – Janu janu re – when the two sahelis tease each other about their love affair.
“Then I got tired of comedy roles or dances. I got the side heroine’s role in Chirag Kahan Roshani Kahan, in which two songs were picturised on me. My first film as a heroine was Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke. Then came Black Cat. Thereafter, I had lead roles in Ghar Ghar Ki Baat and Ghar Basa Ke Dekho.
“I was a great fan of Dara Singh, and had a desire to work with him, which was fulfilled in 1962 when I got a role opposite him as a heroine.
“I was married in 1963. My last film was Palki. It was four years into making, and my first two children – Ajaz and Mehnaz – were born while I was working in the film. This created a lot of difficulties. At times I had shootings eighth month into pregnancy. The Director would handle the situation by creating a scene that Jonnny Walker ke ghar mein khushi aa rahi hai. Later my two younger daughters, Shehnaz and Gulnaz, were born.
“About ten years back, a big tumour of four inches was detected in my brain. The doctor said that it had been sitting there for the last fifteen years, and growing. It came as a big shock. I had never felt anything wrong, I was absolutely normal until one day suddenly I blacked out. I started losing my vision, I lost my memory, I could not recognize anyone. I was operated by Dr Jha of Bombay. The doctor was not sure what would happen to me. My children bid me good bye, because they thought Mummy would not come back. When I came out of the OT, I could see. Suddenly I started remembering everything. My head was all opened up; it still has a long stitching mark. I have come back from the dead, and by the grace of God I am all right.
“Now we live in Canada. All my children are married and settled in Canada. I maintain my links with India. I spend six months in India – I have rented an apartment in Bombay and this one in Pune. Whenever I come to Bombay I do make it a point to meet up with old friends, Nanda, Shyama and Waheeda Rahman. We have a great time together. I spend some time in Bangalore, where Mehmood Bhai’s son Lucky Ali lives. We also visit Hyderabad, where my husband Syed Akbar Ali’s relatives live. By the grace of God, we are very happy.”
At the end of our conversation she agreed to record a small clipping, even though she was not in the best of health. This short video, along with the transcript of our conversation above, would give you an idea of the person – she is sincere, joyous and charming, with an innate goodness.
While leaving the apartment complex, I came across her husband, Syed Akbar Ali, who was just coming in. I was able to exchange some pleasantries; he is the kind of person who impresses you in the very first meeting – a thorough gentleman.
I had come across some very unpleasant piece on the internet about Mumtaz Ali. It is heartening to meet one branch of his, which is so well adjusted, nice and happy. As she celebrates her 71st birthday today (she was born on April 26, 1942), now back in Canada with her family, let me give her my very best wishes and thank her for meeting me. Let me also greet and thank the wonderful AJ and Syed Akbar Ali
Now some great songs picturised on Minoo Mumtaz, some of which were especially recommended by her to me.
1. Aji chale aao aji chale aao tumhein ankhon se dil mein bulaya by Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle from Halaku (1956), lyrics Shailendra, music Shankar Jaikishan
Minoo Mumtaz made a special mention of this song as one of the first songs which made her famous, in which she beats Helen in the dance competition. Shankar Jaikishan are the masters of such dance songs based on folk, or at times, West Asian tunes, and this song has long been my personal favourite. Later they would create several exquisite dance solos and duets in a similar style in Yahudi and many other films. A great favourite of mine.
2. Boojh mera kya gaon re by Shamshad Begum from C.I.D. (1956), lyrics Majrooh Sultanpuri, music OP Nayyar
The impish Minoo Mumtaz, and joyous and full throated Shamshad Begum – one cannot ask for a better combination. This is a stock style of Guru Dutt’s song picturisation in which the lead pair (in this case Dev Anand and Shakila) watch the performance from sidelines. Shamshad Begum passed away recently. It was a sad irony that I greeted her on her birthday, April 14, with her song Mere piya gaye Rangoon, hoping that I would be wishing her on many more birthdays, and within 10 days she was no more. Boojh mera kya gaon re again represents the spirit of joy she epitomised with her songs. Let us pay a tribute to her with this song.
3. Suno re suno re…miyan mera bada beimaan by S Balbir and Geeta Dutt from Ek Saal (1957), lyrics Prem Dhavan, music Ravi
No list of Minoo Mumtaz is complete without her comic songs with Johnny Walker, whom Minoo Mumtaz remembers with great fondness. It is difficult to choose one from several available on the net. This one is full of life as a street performers’ song where the lead pair Ashok Kumar and Madhubala are among the bystanders and they are pulled by the dancers to join them in the fun.
4. Gora rang chunariya kali, motiyon wali ki dil mera loot liya by Rafi and Asha Bhosle from Howrah Bridge (1958), lyrics Qamar Jalalabadi, music OP Nayyar
This is the duet between Mehmood and Minoo Mumtaz which raised the hackles of the then conservative society. Even for the highly prudish, there does not seem to be anything objectionable in this bhangra between brother and sister, which is commonplace today in wedding functions. Mehmood and Minoo Mumtaz are delightful and spontaneous, as she so fondly remembered.
5. Aye ho to dekh lo duniya zara, jeene walo le lo jeene ka maza by Suman Kalyanpur from Chirag Kahan Roshni Kahan (1959), lyrics Prem Dhavan, music Ravi
Minoo Mumtaz is great with party dancing songs. Here she is celebrating the birthday of her pet cat (as mentioned on the YouTube), in one of her significant films in which she had the second lead opposite Rajendra Kumar.
6. Kadam bahke bahke jiya dhadak jaye by Lata Mangeshkar from Bank Manager (1959), lyrics Indivar, music Madan Mohan
Bank Manager is significant for two terrific songs on her – Saba se ye kah do by Asha Bhosle, and Kadam bahke bahke jiya dhadak jaye by Lata Mangeshkar. Great composition by Madan Mohan. I can see Asha Bhosle fans choosing Saba se ye kah do, but my favourite is the Lata Mangeshkar song.
7. Main tumhi se poochhati hun by Lata Mangeshkar from Black Cat (1959), lyrics Jaan Nisar Akhtar, music N Datta
Among her films as a heroine, this song is my special favourite. One is used to seeing her as a mujra dancer, but as the heroine lip synching this song, as also another sweet song in this film – Sitare raah takte hain chale aao chale aao – she looks very convincing.
8. Janu janu re khae khanke hai tora kanganaa by Asha Bhosle and Geeta Dutt from Insaan Jaag Utha (1959), lyrics Shailendra, music SD Burman
This is another song which is a special favourite of Minoo Mumtaz. In this song she acts opposite Madhubala, the two sahelis teasing each other about their love affairs.
9. Dil ki kahani rang layi hai by Asha Bhosle from Chaudahvi Ka Chand (1960), lyrics Shakeel Badayuni, music Ravi
Chadahvi Ka Chand is among films in which there was more than one outstanding song picturised on Minoo Mumtaz – Bedardi mere sainyan and Dil ki kahani rang layi hai, both among the greatest mujras. This one leaves Guru Dutt speechless.
10. Jane jana yun na dekho by Asha Bhosle from Faulad (1963), lyrics Anjaan, music GS Kohli
Minoo Mumtaz mentioned about her dream of working opposite Dara Singh. She could not recollect the name of the film, but here her dream is fulfilled, in which she is seen seducing Dara Singh (?).
Note: BG Horniman (Mumtaz Ali’s foster father?)
I believe Horniman Sahib whom Minoo Mumtaz and AJ referred to was this Englishman who is described in this picture as a ‘well-wisher of India’ and the editor of ‘Bombay Chronicle’. There is plenty of material on him on the net, but none that I could find which gave Mumtaz Ali connection. He was an Englishman, but a sympathiser of the Nationalist Movement. His reports on Jallianwalla Bagh massacre and criticism of the colonial government led to his deportation to England. He later returned to India and ran the highly popular evening paper “Bombay Sentinel”. He died in Bombay in 1948. A large park in South Bombay has been named ‘Horniman Cirlce’ in his honour.
Acknowledgment: I am grateful to imagesofasia.com for permission to use the image of BG Horniman.